• writing: behind the scenes

    I haven’t been here all that much lately. Maybe you noticed?

    I want to be here—I miss this space—and I am here, just not here here, if you know what I mean.

    It’s the book that’s taking up all my time. Well, that and baking and going to the theater and spending time with the kids (because for some odd reason they persist in needing me) and cooking extra turkey dinners because TURKEY and writing Facebook birthday emails to friends that go like so:

    This morning the power went out so I couldn’t shower, get supper in the crock pot, flush the toilets, make my coffee, or check email, Also, I couldn’t go running because it was raining, the kids were squabbly, and not a single one of the five mousetraps my husband set caught the mouse that has been plaguing us. I hope your day is going better than mine. Happy Birthday. 

    About the book: the going is slow. Torturously slow. I started the whole thing over (no joke) and while I’m happy I did (because I finally feel like I might—maybe, maybe, maybe—be on the right track) it still kinda stinks because STARTING OVER.

    But it’s okay. Really.

    Though sometimes, I confess (quite readily), I get soooo weary of fighting for writing time.

    It’s hard enough, dredging up the self-discipline to plop my butt down and type, but there are an infinite number of other things that must be attended to if I am to write.

    First, there’s the child care for the younger two and the juggling of the older kids’ work and study schedules, and coordinating Melissa’s work transportation. If the older kids are at home while I’m writing, I have to give them to-do lists so Life Can Go On while I’m squirreled away in my lonely torture chamber I MEAN WRITER’S GARRET.

    Second, there’s self-care prep work. If I’m to think properly (ha), I must have a decent night’s sleep, and exercise, too, so I don’t completely rot into a pile of nothingness. This means I have to go to bed in good time so I can wake up in good time to go running with my crotchety husband who almost always insists on fighting about running in the morning because dark/rain/cold/early/you name it even though he knows he’s going to lose so I don’t know why he bothers. Then, of course, there’s my shower to take, my clothes to put on, my coffee to make. After which I have to prod the kids downstairs, wrench their books from their rigid claws, de-glaze their eyes, supervise their chores, and then actually get everyone where they need to be.

    All that to carve out a measly two or three hours of time for something I dread with every fiber of my being and that may not ever even see the light of day, hello, existential crisis.

    Actually, it’s not all bad. I get a buzz from tearing words from my brain (call me weird), and I have committed cheerleaders who wade through my muck and help point the way, bless their hearts.

    The bad news: There’s no fast way through this mess, so I’ll see you in ten years.

    The good news: I have something to work on, yay.

    Anyway, after writing all morning, come lunch time I’m generally so screened-and-thunked-out that the mere thought of composing a blog post makes me want to weep. Instead, I sit on the sofa and scroll idly while drinking the coffee that’s supposed to make me productive while battling waves of guilt because real writers churn it out and I could do more if I pushed harder. And then it’s time to make supper, and oh crap, I still haven’t checked my older daughter’s algebra and, Whoa-oa, THAT’S what my son calls that a clean bathroom?


    And thus concludes my long-winded explanation for my skimpy posting. The end.

    PS. In case you’re wondering, the man in the above photos is one of the owners at the farm where my daughter works.

    This same time, years previous: in the sweet kitchen, the quotidian (12.1.14), nanny sitting, Thanksgiving of 2013, sushi!!!, the quotidian (12.3.12), Friday variety, Mom’s cabbage salad, beef bourguignon, and potatoes in cream with Gruyere.

  • Chattanooga Thanksgiving of 2016

    Hell on wheels, is what I call car trips. Stuffing everyone into an excruciatingly small space, strapping them down, and then barreling down the interstate at breakneck speeds… I mean, really. It’s insane. 

    However, I am happy to report that despite my poor attitude and a new (old) van that has hardly any foot room for the back seat riders (seriously? of all the possible design flaws and they screw up foot space?!?!), the trip was surprisingly bearable, mostly thanks to a flip-down monitor and a bag full of DVDs.

    Movies are magic, amen and hallelujah.

    We  made it to the big green house filled with cousins and spent the next few days doing all the things that one does at Thanksgiving.

    Our specifics included:

    Running: a 5K, around town, and, in this case, indoors at 12 mph and on an incline.

    Eating so much cheese that we started using it as an art medium.

    Lounge-about games.

    Stand-in-a-line-and-make-faces games.
    Bartending.

    Island eating, and cleaning up, and eating, and cleaning up, and eating, and….
    Getting a kick out of the little zester that turned the making of the cranberry sauce into art.
    Ze  Hostesses on La Sofah.

    Letter tiles: for offical bananagram matches and random word building parties.

    Homeschooling discussions.

    Younger brother pokes older brother and voila, a smile!
    A walk to the cemetery.

    My  contribution to the T-day feast.

    Arm wrestling matches. 
    (Girl on the left scoops ice cream for a living and gave my husband a run for his money.)

    The Saltine Cracker Challenge: 4 saltines in 1 minute.

    Chatting with the Hong Kong relations.

    And then we came home and I dug the turkey I bought last week out of the freezer because the design flaw of going away over Thanksgiving is The We-Just-Celebrated-Thanksgiving-And-Have-No-Leftovers Problem. So this Thursday is slated to be our Second Thanksgiving Extravaganza. Bonus: I get to experiment with my sister-in-law’s killer turkey recipe while it’s still fresh in my mind. Can’t wait!

    PS. I should probably share that my sister-in-law pulled the whole thing off without a stove top—it broke/popped/exploded (depending on who is telling the story) right before we all descended. She never even batted an eye, that woman.

    This same time, years previous: apple crumb pie, Chattanooga Thanksgiving of 2015, the day before, a treat, kale pomegranate salad, Thanksgiving of 2012, monster cookies, peppermint lip balm, Thanksgiving of 2011, Thanksgiving of 2010, and apple chutney.

  • curried Jamaican butternut soup

    A few weeks ago I attended a fundraiser planning meeting at a local restaurant. At the end of the meeting, one of the women—who happened to also be one of the restaurant managers—scurried into the back. She had some gluten-free bread she wanted us to taste, she said. But when she returned, she was carrying not just the bread, but cute little bowls of curried squash soup to go with it.

    Someone serving me food? From out of the blue? What a thrill!

    “Not counting the toppings, it’s only five ingredients,” announced the manager.

    “And they are…?” I coaxed, my mouth full.

    She rattled them off: butternut, coconut milk, curry (Jamaican curry), cayenne, and salt. I noticed she didn’t count the green onions scattered atop the soup, so maybe salt doesn’t count as one of the five ingredients? Whatever. Either way, the point is: the soup is a minimalist’s dream. (And, as the restaurant manager gleefully pointed out, it’s vegan and gluten-free, so there’s that, too.)

    With my last piece of (quite good!) gluten-free bread, I scraped the bowl clean, sighed deeply, and vowed to replicate the soup for myself.

    Which I’ve now done—twice! The first time I made it, I was just messing around, trying to hit the right flavor notes. The second time, I wrote down the amounts as I went.

    A few notes worth mentioning:

    1. The soup is not pureed, so there are little chunks of tender butternut. This is good.
    2. There is no chopping of onions or mincing of garlic! (The green onions don’t count.)
    3. The green onions are a must, for color, crunch, and bite.
    4. The kids, while not fans, all eat this, no prob.

    Curried Jamaican Butternut Soup
    Copycatted from a local restaurant.

    I hear you can make your own Jamaican curry powder, but I haven’t tried it for myself.

    4 cups roasted butternut squash
    1 14-ounce can coconut milk
    2 cups water, maybe more
    2 teaspoons salt
    ¼ teaspoon cayenne (I used chili Coban), maybe more
    2-3 tablespoons Jamaican curry powder, maybe more
    toppings: minced green onions and (my addition) sour cream

    Put the squash, milk, water, and spices into a saucepan and mash to combine. Heat through. If you’d like a thinner soup, add more water. Taste to correct spices. Ladle the soup into bowls and top with green onions and sour cream.

    This same time, years previous: apple crumb pie, apple raisin bran muffins, in my kitchen: 7:35 am, how to use up Thanksgiving leftovers in 10 easy steps, a big day at church, cranberry pie with cornmeal streusel topping, apple rum cake, steel-cut oatmeal, and potato leek soup.

  • the quotidian (11.21.16)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace



    Post-election therapy.

    Beans and greens.

    Peanut butter cream: a thank you pie for the neighbor who loaned her his trailer.

    My  older daughter’s attempt to season the skillet.
    I told them to stop talking so they wrote notes instead.

    Christmas lullabies.

    Cleaning tack (with expensive olive oil, grr).

    On  the “ah-ya” (short for caballo).
    After much searching (soul, internet, and store), new kicks for the mama.

    Best buds.
    Still can’t beat his papa.
    Herding cats: what taking a family photo is like.

    PS. A couple fun (family-friendly) videos: this one gave me the shivers, and this one (watch it all the way to the end) kept me up at night, wondering and giggling.

    This same time, years previous: spiced applesauce cake with caramel glaze, in my kitchen: noon, sock curls, official, the quotidian (11.19.12), ushering in the fun, orange cranberry bread, and chocolate pots de creme.

  • Thai chicken curry

    A number of weeks ago, at a baby shower at church, one of my friends and I got to talking about food (no surprise there). Many years ago, this friend asked me to watch her toddler son for her. Now I don’t remember if I watched him a number of times, or just once, but what I do remember is the lunch(es) she packed for him: containers full of curried lentils, cooked baby carrots, whole grains. The food was homemade, well-seasoned, and loaded with veggies. The kid scarfed it down.

    I was impressed because:
    a) she worked full-time and prioritized home-cooked meals
    b) she cooked real real food, and
    c) her food choices demonstrated complete disregard for pickiness, go Mama.


    Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed hearing what she’s feeding her family.


    So  that Sunday afternoon, while stuffing my face with candy corn and pretzels, I plied her with my whatcha-been-makin’ question. She listed off the old regulars (can’t even recall what they were, they were so ordinary—probably chili or lentils), but when she mentioned a Thai chicken curry that her whole family loves, I zeroed in.

    She rattled off the ingredients—boneless chicken, peanut butter, fish sauce, cilantro, coconut milk, Thai curry paste, etc.—and then the cooking method which couldn’t be more simple: just three hours in a crock pot, bam. I was sold.

    That night I typed “Thai chicken curry” into Google’s search bar, skimmed through several recipes, selected the one that sounded the most similar, and then sent my friend the link. “Is this it?” I asked. 

    “Yes,” she said.

    “I’m doubling it,” I wrote back.

    I’ve since made the curry twice. The first time I thought it too saucy, so last week I made it again, this time with half the coconut milk and none of the broth, and it was just right, hip-hip!

    On  Saturday afternoon, while a couple college students perched on kitchen stools and regaled me with their adventures, I heated up individual bowls of rice, curry, and roasted veggies for a photo shoot.

    It’s rare that I photograph food out of context—ie, without intending to immediately eat it afterwards—but now that darkness comes early, natural light is in short supply. But then, whaddya know, the girls agreed to share the food so the photography shoot wasn’t out of context after all.

    Thai Chicken Curry
    Adapted from the blog Show Me The Yummy.

    I’ve recorded the recipe as we like it: doubled and with the adjusted quantities (more lime juice, no broth, less coconut milk, more meat, etc).

    The sauteed red pepper is a wonderful addition. This last time I roasted it, along with a head of cauliflower, and served it alongside the curry.

    ½ cup each creamy peanut butter and fresh lime juice
    ¼ cup each fish sauce, brown sugar, and red curry paste
    8 cloves garlic, minced
    1 14-ounce can coconut milk
    1 teaspoon ground ginger
    ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
    4-5 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs and legs
    required (don’t doubt!) toppings: fresh cilantro, green onion, chopped peanuts
    optional (but highly recommended!) topping: sauteed red bell pepper

    Measure everything (but the chicken and toppings) into a bowl and whisk to combine. Pour into a crock pot. Add the chicken. Cook on low heat for 3 hours (it seems like it can’t possibly be enough time, but it is—any longer and the chicken gets mushy), stirring once or twice.

    Remove the chicken from the crock pot, cut into bite-sized pieces, and return to the crock pot. Taste the curry, adding salt and black pepper, if you wish.

    Serve the curry over rice and pass the toppings.

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (11.16.15), I will never be good at sales, gravity, refrigerator bran muffins, the wiggles, why I’m glad we don’t have guns in our house, the quotidian (11.16.11), and chicken salad.

  • enough, for now

    Tuesday night I went to bed at 9:30. I woke up at 2:30—my husband’s side of the bed was empty. I found him in the kitchen, sitting in the computer’s blue glow. He looked like someone had died.

    Back in bed, I forced my body to hold still, my eyes to shut, willing sleep to come. But my hands kept clenching and my racing, totally irrational thoughts (at least I hoped they were irrational, oh, pleasepleaseplease) ricocheted wildly, completely out of control, until, shortly before five, I gave up.

    As I showered, I racked my brains, trying to reorient myself. What to say to the children? They’d be crushed. How to give perspective? How to speak with love, kindness, and respect when I felt none of those things? I needed a level head, my two feet firmly planted. But on what?

    The water poured over my face and then it came to me: kindness. Yes, that was it. I’d tell my children to be kind. Respectful, too. I would not—must not—be ugly about this. There would be no name calling, no bad mouthing, no pointing fingers.

    Downstairs, I lit a candle. When my older son walked into the room and asked quietly, anxiously, “Is it as bad…,” I put my head down and cried. And then, a little later, processing it with the rest of the children, I broke again. One child stomped to the bathroom and slammed the door. The other two sat hunched—one in the swivel chair, the other on the sofa—their faces twisted.

    As my son headed out the door to his 12-hour shift, I said, Be extra kind to people today.

    I know, he said. I will.

    What was there to do? Something, anything.

    I fetched three butternuts from the back hall and sliced them, laying the pieces on a tray before slipping them into the oven to roast. I mixed up a batch of granola. That afternoon I bought groceries, and then dropped the kids at the library before meeting with my writing group. For two blessed hours we rearranged words, ate chocolate, laughed.

    Such balm, that laughter.

    *** 

    My thoughts have been all over the map. Sometimes I think, Oh what’s the big deal. Life happens, we’ll move on, some good might come of this, blah, blah, blah. Other times I get flashes of anxiety so searing my gut heaves.

    On social media and the radio, the voices blare. There is so much anger and hurt. Listening for too long, I feel I’ll drown.

    So instead, I hunker down, focus on the tangible, the ordinary. I go on runs. I visit with the college students who crash at my house. I make my kids rehearse their choir music. I speak at a fundraiser dinner for an organization that partners with at-risk and homeless mothers. I see a play. I help sweep up the glass from a dropped pan. I wash the horrifically dusty stairs. I fold laundry. I tease my husband. I make supper.

    For now, that’s all.

    For now, that’s enough.
    xo

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (11.9.15), George Washington Carver sweet potato soup with peanut butter and ginger, for the time change, the quotidian (11.10.14), maple roasted squash, pumpkin cranberry cheesecake muffins, mashed sweet potatoes, and my apple line-up.

  • the quotidian (11.7.16)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace



    Stacking them up.

    To  combat Halloween: kale, leftover spaghetti carbonara, egg.
    Two thumbs up (though some silly people scraped off the pepitas and cilantro).

    Chuchitos: thanks to Melissa.

    Cousin crush.

    Kitty sandwich.

    Queen of the decaying flowerbeds.

    Not typical November colors.

    Routine maintenance.

    Definition of awesome: when you do a job for a friend and payment arrives in the belly of a pinata.

    Joint practice.

    A)  Inflated ego? B) Bored child? C) Just another day in the Murch household?
    (Answer: C)
    Our new (old) van.

    Final donut-making steps (literally): putting the equipment in the attic.

    Princess Bride reenactment.

    The family communicator: perhaps I take my job a little too seriously?

    This same time, years previous: musings from the coffee shop, awkward, “How are you different now?”, bierocks, let me sum up, laid flat, crispy cinnamon cookies, and brown sugar icing.

  • cinnamon pretzels

    Guess what, folks! Just as I predicted, I’m up to my ears in German baking. It’s been a long time since I allowed myself to wallow in a new cookbook, studying a new cuisine.

    I’m only in the beginning stages, which is code for: I’m wobbly. I’ve been paying particular attention to the yeasted cakes (I’m a sucker for everyday pastries), and while the cakes are simple enough that I’m pretty sure I’m doing them correctly, they’re different enough that I’m not exactly sure how I feel about them. This is a good thing (my middle name is Pollyanna): it means I’m stepping outside my box. Thrills!

    It’s quite the process, determining if a recipe works. Do we prefer it fresh, or is it better the second day? Do my kids turn up their noses, or do they request the item for a snack? Does my husband voluntarily take it in his lunch? If I set the cake stand on the table, will people help themselves to cake for breakfast? When the cake plate is empty, does anyone ask if there is more hidden in a cupboard somewhere?

    I didn’t need any of those tests for the cinnamon pretzels. Right off, they were an enormous hit.

    The pretzels taste like a cross between animal crackers, graham crackers, biscotti, and peppernuts. They are mild, faintly sweet, and crunchy. They’d made a perfect snack for toddlers, but—warning—adults are incapable of keeping their hands off them.

    It  might seem tedious, having to shape all those pretzels, but it was actually quite low-key and mess-free. While my younger two kids practiced carols for their Christmas concert, I stood at the table-that-is-not-my-new-island (waiting, Honey, WAITING) and rolled and twisted the dough into adorable little pretzels.

    For one tray, we sprinkled pearl sugar on the egg-washed pretzels to look like salt. It wasn’t Luisa’s suggestion, so my little embellishment made me feel all kitchen goddess-y, in a Germanic sort of way.

    Cinnamon Pretzels
    Adapted from Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss.

    Even though the pretzels’ utter simplicity is what makes them so beguiling, I can’t help but wonder how they’d taste with a hit of ginger, or maybe cardamom. Fabulous, probably. Also, I think whole wheat pastry flour would work well here, especially if making these a snack for little ones.

    9 tablespoons, plus 1 teaspoon, butter
    1¼ cups sugar
    1 tablespoon cinnamon
    ¼ teaspoon salt
    4 eggs, divided
    4 cups flour
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    pearl sugar, optional

    Brown the butter over medium heat. Pour the melted butter into a mixing bowl and beat in the sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Beat in three of the eggs, one at a time. Add the flour and baking powder and mix well. The dough will feel like play-dough. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

    Break off ½ ounce pieces of dough. (Yes, we used a scale—dough-ball size was my younger son’s job.) Roll the dough into 10-inch long strips. (Yes, we used a ruler… in the beginning.) There is no need to use much, if any, flour. Shape the strips into pretzels (you’ll figure it out—just do it), and place the pretzels on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. The pretzels hardly rise, so there’s no need to leave much space between pretzels.

    Beat the fourth egg until creamy and brush over the pretzels. Really get a nice coating—the egg gives the pretzels a delightful glossy varnish. Sprinkle with pearl sugar, if you like. (Recommend! Recommend!)

    Bake the pretzels at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, or until the pretzels are golden brown. Out of the oven, let the pretzels sit on the hot trays for another couple minutes to continue crisping before transferring them to a cooling rack. Store cooled pretzels in a pretty glass jar on the counter.

    This same time, years previous: 2015 garden stats and notes, meatloaf, the quotidian (11.4.13), chatty time, posing for candy, cheesy broccoli potato soup, why I’m spacey, sweet and sour lentils, and Greek yogurt.

  • the quotidian (10.31.16)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace



    Potatoes in cream.

    Seventeen!

    If  only she were as fastidious about organizing her room…

    In  lieu of dye. 
    Handwriting lessons.

    On  its last leg: our sweet little car.
    Sibling love: it’s complex. 

    This same time, years previous: listening, watching, reading, apple farro salad, stuffed peppers, quiche soup, apples schmapples, dusting the dough, and hamburger buns and sloppy joes.

  • cilantro lime rice

    This post was written over the last few days, a compilation of my jots and tiddles.

    ***

    “I am feeling current moods of frustration right now.”

    I opened up my October word document to write a post and this was the last line I had written. At first I didn’t know what I was looking at, but then I remembered: my son said it. He was going on a rant—something about his shirts going missing—and it made me laugh so I quick typed it down.

    To be clear, I am not feeling current moods of frustration right now. I’m not sure what I’m feeling. Kind of blah, maybe. But good, too. Good blah? I spent the morning writing, and it actually felt productive which was an unusual occurrence. And a few hours before that, my husband and I went running, so at least the day got off to a good start.

    *** 

    About that run. It happened in the dark, with the wind whipping at the trees and sending the dry leaves scuttling and making us skittery. Once we heard a low growl and a quick flick of the flashlight revealed an untied dog, slowly rising. It stayed put, but we both picked up the pace. And then, a half mile later, there was the loud sound of flapping wings right by my husband’s ankle and a bird shot out of the ditch. My husband leaped straight up, his feet pedaling the air as though he were trying to climb to heaven. I gasp-laughed for a quarter mile.

    *** 

    I just finished reading Lab Girl (so beautifully written, though I admit I skimmed some of the science-y sections) and now I need a book. Suggestions?

    *** 

    I’m craving cake. Actually, I’m craving baking. You know, the kind of afternoon where the hours stretch like a leisurely yawn and there is nothing on the agenda but sugar, butter, and the eating of delicious things.

    It’s because of Luisa that I’m feeling this way, I think. (Well, because of Luisa and because I don’t have any good desserts on hand right now.) I just finished reading her interview with the German woman who helped her recipe test for her latest cookbook and it totally put me in the mood to bake so I, naturally (but uncharacteristically), ordered the book on the spot.

    Update: it’s here!

    And my name is in it!

    Since I only tested one recipe, I assumed I wasn’t a real tester, like real testers had to do a certain number of recipes to qualify. That Luisa had the integrity to include my name, even though my role was eensy-weensy, proved she really does pay attention to detail, making me trust her and her recipes all the more.

    Now I’m reading recipes in snatched moments, dreaming of wood fires and yeasted cakes and caramelized sugar. Gearing up, in other words. I’ve already warned the family that we’re eating only German pastries for the next couple months.

    They’re cool with it.

    *** 

    The other day my daughter was asking my son if the previous night’s show was any good.

    “Did you have a clap-ation?” she asked.

    We looked at her blankly, and then it hit me. Clap-ation, it’s the new standing ovation!

    ***

    As I’ve said before, I am head over heels with my rice cooker. Every time I think about it, I get all tingly. Giddy, practically. Mid-afternoon rolls around, and I’m like, Is it time to cook some rice yet?


    I’ve developed a thing for cilantro lime rice. I discovered the recipe on the Simply Recipes blog and have made it several times. Everyone loves it. It’s so good, it stands alone, but it’s also fab with anything Mexican-y or Thai. Or just with another wedge of lime and an avocado.

    Cilantro Lime Rice
    Adapted from Simply Recipes.

    The lime juice is supposed to be added after the rice is cooked, but the first time I messed up and added the lime juice before cooking. The rice was lovely. The next time, I added half before and half after and didn’t think it was any better. Or much different, for that matter. My conclusion: add the lime juice whenever you want. It’ll be fine.

    If you chop the cilantro fine, it looks prettier, I think. (Though I’m always guilty of a sloppy, rough-chop.). Also, a single recipe doesn’t make nearly enough. Double it.

    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1½ cups basmati rice
    1 large clove garlic, minced
    2¼ cups water
    1 teaspoon salt
    zest of one lime
    3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
    1 cup cilantro, fine stems and leaves, minced

    Saute the rice in the oil for 5 minutes or until the rice starts to brown. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the water, salt, and zest. At this point, you can cook the rice on the stove-top as you would for plain rice, or you can transfer the whole mess to your rice cooker, clap on the lid, and press the “on” button (squee!).

    When the rice is done, fluff with a fork and gently fold in the lime juice and cilantro. Serve and swoon.

    This same time, years previous: reading-and-ice cream evenings, the quotidian (10.27.14), the quotidian (10.28.13), under the grape arbor, applesauce cake with cinnamon cream cheese frosting, 2009 garden stats and notes, and go, Obama!.